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LIFE OF JONSON,
BY MR. CHALMERS.
THE circumstances of Jonson's life have been hitherto very inaccurately related. Some particulars may be collected from his works, and from Fuller and Wood who lived at no great distance from his time. Drummond, the celebrated Scotch poet has afforded a few interesting memoirs which, coming from Jonson in the hours of confidence, may be considered as authentic; but these materials have furnished no general narrative that is not inconsistent, and imperfect for want of dates. What follows, therefore, must be read, as it was written, with considerable diffidence.
Ben Jonson, or Johnson, for so he, as well as some of his friends, wrote his name, was born in Hartshorne Lane near Charingcross, Westminster, June 11, 1574, about a month after the death of his father. Dr. Bathurst, whose life was written by Mr. Warton, informed Aubrey that Jonson was born in Warwickshire, but all other accounts fix his birth in Westminster. Fuller says that "with all his industry he could not find him in his cradle, but that he could fetch him from his long coats: when a little child, he lived in Hartshorne Lane near Charing Cross." Mr. Malone examined the register of St. Margaret's Westminster and St. Martin's in the Fields, but without being able to discover the time of his baptism'.
His family was originally of Annandale in Scotland, whence his grandfather removed to Carlisle in the time of Henry VIII. under whom he held some office. But his son being deprived both of his estate and liberty in the reign of queen Mary, went afterwards in holy orders, and leaving Carlisle, settled in Westminster.
Our poet was first sent to a private school in the church of St. Martin's in the Fields, and was afterwards removed to Westminster school. Here he had for his preceptor the illustrious Camden, for whom he ever preserved the highest respect, and besides dedicating one of his best plays to him, commemorates him in one of his epigrams as the person to whom he owed all he knew. He was making very extraordinary progress at this school, when his mother, who, soon after her husband's death, had married a bricklayer, took him home to learn his step-father's business. How long he continued in
1 Shakspeare, Ford and Jonson, in Malone's Shakspeare. C.
this degrading occupation is uncertain; according to Fuller he soon left it and went to Cambridge, but necessity obliged him to return to his father who, among other works, employed him on the new building at Lincoln's Inn, and there he was to be seen with a trowel in one hand and a book in the other. This, Mr. Malone thinks, must have been either in 1588, or 1593, in each of which years, Dugdale informs us, some new buildings were erected by the society. Wood varies the story by stating that he was taken from the trowel to attend sir Walter Raleigh's son abroad and afterwards went to Cambridge, but young Raleigh was not born till 1594, nor ever went abroad except with his father in 1617 to Guiana, where he lost his life. So many of Jonson's contemporaries, however, have mentioned his connection with the Raleigh family that it is probable he was in some shape befriended by them, although not while he worked at his father's business, for from that he ran away, enlisted as a common soldier and served in the English army then engaged against the Spaniards in the Netherlands. says the author of his life in the Biographia Britannica," he acquired a degree of military glory, which rarely falls to the lot of a comman man in that profession. In an encounter with a single man of the enemy, he slew his opponent, and stripping him, carried off the spoils in the view of both armies." As our author's fame does not rest on his military exploits, it can be no detraction to hint that one man killing and stripping another is a degree of military prowess of no very extraordinary kind. His biographer, however, is unwilling to quit the subject until he has informed us that " the glory of this action receives a particular heightening from the reflection, that he thereby stands singularly distinguished above the rest of his brethren of the poetical race, very few of whom have ever acquired any reputation in arms."
On his return, he is said to have resumed his studies, and to have gone to St. John's College, Cambridge. This fact rests chiefly upon a tradition in that college, supported by the gift of several books now in the library with his name in them. As to the question why his name does not appear in any of the lists, it is answered that he was only a sizar, who made a short stay, and his name could not appear among the admissions where no notice was usually taken of any young men that had not scholar-ships; and as to matriculation, there was at that time no register. If he went to St. John's it seems probable enough that the shortness of his stay was occasioned by his necessities, and this would be the case whether he went to Cambridge in 1588, as Mr. Malone conjectures, or after his return from the army, perhaps in 1594. In either case he was poor, and received no encouragement from his family in his education. His persevering love of literature, however, amidst so many difficulties, ought to be mentioned to his honour.
Having failed in these more creditable attempts to gain a subsistence, he began his theatrical career, at first among the strolling companies, and was afterwards admitted into an obscure theatre, called the Green Curtain, in the neighbourhood of Shoreditch, from which the present Curtain Road seems to derive its name. He had not been there long, before he attempted to write for the stage, but was not at first very successful either as an author or actor. Meres enumerates him among the writers of tragedy, but no tragedy of his writing exists, prior to 1598 when his comedy of Every Man in his Humour procured him a name. Dexter, in his Satyromastix, censures bis acting as aukward and mean, and his temper as rough and untractable.
2 See Oldys's account hereafter quoted, p. 451. C.